I'm trying to decide what genre my novel should be. I wanna be more generic so the answers can help other people, so my question is: How to know if a story is a dark fantasy or a paranormal story? What are the typical writing styles/tropes to look for that can help make that decision?
First of all, defining a work into a genre is tricky. Most books belong to most than one genre, others don't belong to any and end up "inventing" a whole new genre.
I personally have a small grudge against dark fantasy because I feel that it is not well-defined enough and being used to draw readers. "Look at this, it's not regular boring fantasy. It's (suspense) DARK fantasy!".
But, rants aside, yours is a great question so here's my answer. Please notice that there's no "genre manual" and this is based mostly into what I feel is common knowledge.
Dark fantasy is generally considered to be deeply unsettling and/or scary fantasy. It takes many elements of high-fantasy and puts a twist on them to accomplish this.
The most common twists are in the lines of "the hero is actually an asshole" or "the villain is just a guy trying to survive like us all". This kind of twist makes the story more gray in moral terms and that is "dark", because the choices the heroes make keep haunting them and us, readers. There are also very weird, but surprisingly effective twists. I recently saw a story where medieval knights rode dinosaurs instead of horses.
Other twists might affect or discuss the typical stereotypes from traditional fantasy. I have seen a dark fantasy book written from the POV of orcs. This is "dark" not only because archetypal orcs are brutal killing machines, but also because they are the heroes and you are rooting for them. You want them to be brutal killing machines. And that's scary, discovering such bloodlust within yourself. The orc main characters are also effective because they put everything you thought you knew about fantasy through another perspective. What if the Fellowship of the Ring were the bad guys, after all?
Dark fantasy also is frequently paired with a glorification of violence rarely found on more traditional fantasy. While a "light fantasy" book might simply say an enemy was killed, a dark fantasy one will say it was brutally stabbed, dark blood spraying from the uneven cut while its limbs trembled and an horrid dying cry came out of his mouth while it drowned on its own blood.
There's also huge emphasis on the various forms of suffering and human imperfection. Expect a lot of cruel characters, ugly characters, crippled characters, homeless characters, outlaws, prostitutes, assassins, tyrants, war, plague, pollution, famine, death, you name it. If it's something bad (or an indicator of something bad), there's a good chance it will show up in dark fantasy.
As the name implies, paranormal stories focus on something from out of what is considered "normal".
However, "normal" is an incredibly subjective matter. What is normal for you might not be normal for your characters and vice versa. Lord of the Rings has dwarves, elves and dragons, things very far from our reality, but the characters barely bat an eye at them.
Paranormal stories are about the paranormal element, why it is paranormal and what consequences it brings to what was normal. Paranormal things disturb the normal reality and that's what makes them disturbing. Ghosts are disturbing because they can do very unusual things (traversing walls being the classical example), they are beyond any explanation and they prove there is life beyond death, which raises a lot of unsettling questions. When you are being pursued by a ghost, you're not only being followed by a sheet with holes for eyes. You are being pursued by something you cannot evade, who can kill or harm you, even being dead itself, and challenges your very notion of reality.
Also, keep in mind that simply showing something out of the reality is not enough. If a ghost shows up, says "hey" and then disappears, never to be seen again, it is not a paranormal story. It's a story with a paranormal element. For it to be a paranormal story, you have to focus in how the character's reality is being threatened by the paranormal event. Fear and paranoia are good places to start.
- dark fantasy stories that happen in a fantasy world
- paranormal stories that don't make the reader scared
Can we still tell which story is a dark fantasy, and which is paranormal?
I think the main distinction would be the amount of worldbuilding associated with the supernatural part of the story.
If supernatural occurs sparingly, and the reader has little knowledge of its origin and rules, then the book feels more paranormal.
If, on the other hand, we have a developed system of magic, or the magical creatures are not just appearing for a moment, but the reader has some insight into their motives and society, particularly if the protagonist get transferred into magical world, then the book leans towards dark fantasy.
Genre is largely a marketing consideration, and should typically be considered after writing, not before --if you're consciously seeking out common tropes to imitate, you're likely to produce something cliched and unoriginal.
After you've completed your book, seek out books that you think would most appeal to the same audience as your book, and then try to position your book as whatever genre those books are assigned to.
The exceptions to this rule are:
- if you want to write in a genre you don't know at all, in which case you should do some advance reading, not to imitate the generic tropes, but to avoid them
- if your goal is to subvert or expand on genre expectations, in which case you'll need to know what they are first.
What your novel should be? What do you want it to be?
Paranormal story would would be about the paranormal. (duh!) It is the genre for stories where you want to tell about the things hiding beside or beneath the normal and their discovery. Is your story about discovering hidden things? Things that go bump in the night?
Typical trait of paranormal stories is that even though you discover something hidden it will be hidden again and remain paranormal. How they get hidden varies. Somebody might hide them to protect something. The paranormal might be elusive and vanish without a trace. The evidence, including witnesses, might be destroyed by the events. Insanity, the destruction of minds exposed to paranormal, is traditional, if horror is involved.
Another trait is heroes that find those paranormal things in the first place. They might be in a special place that is haunted or otherwise special. They might be actively looking for the paranormal. They might themselves be special somehow. Or a combination of the above.
Dark fantasy story is about the world being darker and scarier than we think. Also supernatural. There be monsters. Monster here simply means evil and powerful. Are characters or entities central to your story evil or even EVIL? Are they powerful enough that their actions determine the fate of your characters? Is the fact that they are evil central to your story?
As an example a story about the invasion of an horde of orcs is IMHO dark fantasy, if a) they are a real threat and likely to win b) they are actively evil in their actions c) the story shows their evil actions and it is relevant to the story.
Note that if it is the protagonists that are actively evil, they automatically are powerful and relevant relative to the story.
These are just my personal thoughts. Very much IMHO. But writing this did not cost me anything and it might be useful, so why not?